Can Christian higher education be non-ideological?

Can Christian higher education divorce itself from raising issues of political implications?

In a word: Absolutely not.

Recently, I came across an interesting article from a former adjunct teacher at King’s College. King’s College, if you’ll remember, is the historically protestant school that caught headlines when it hired lapsed Catholic and conservative critic Dinesh D’Souza to be their next president.

In the article, Jonathan Fitzgerald laments the overtly conservative tone present in the school’s educational curricula. To him, the conservative sentiment troublingly overrides the Christian sentiment from which the school was chartered.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, are those [Christian colleges] that aspire to turn out a certain kind of student, with certain political leanings and a mission to remake the world according to a certain conception of Christianity. The King’s College is among the most flagrant among them.

[…]

It wasn’t just that the culture of the school appeared to favor right-wing politics; conservatism seemed to be ingrained into its very character. Take, for example, this excerpt from the college’s website in response to the question “What is Economics?”:

The Bible affirms private property, supports entrepreneurial activity, and calls us as Christians to be honest, hard-working, thrifty, just, and generous in exercising stewardship with our talents and resources. We believe that a market economy characterized by substantial individual freedom and a limited role for government best promotes these values and virtues.

[…]

But, the more I learned about King’s, the more obvious it became that as an institution it is less interested in imparting a well-rounded education to its students, and much more concerned with graduating a particular kind of politically conservative Christian, cast in the image of its prominent administrators.

[…]

Back in August, shortly after D’Souza’s selection as president, a current King’s student named Joshua Wright described his experience there in a comment at the blog I edit, Patrolmag.com. Under the former provost, he wrote, the college was “a laboratory for Marvin Olasky’s special concoction of philosophical traditionalism and political conservatism.” Wright was also disappointed by D’Souza’s hiring; he saw it as a theological compromise in favor of a political ideology. His comment continued, “I am at King’s because I was informed that we were a college that didn’t tell you what to think but how to think. Apparently, we’re supposed to think like Sean Hannity.”

I really appreciated the tone of Fitzgerald’s analysis. He did not come across as a partisan hack fueled towards undermining King’s College. He expressed reasonable concerns and did so charitably. Fitzgerald does, though, admit that there is a large swath of distance between his own ideology and that of King’s College. Readers should be aware that it may be too easy to criticize a particular institution when you don’t share its worldview.

I, on the other hand, am prone to defend and extol King’s College for probably the same reason Fitzgerald laments it.

  • In an ever-weakening doctrinal fidelity amidst evangelicals, King’s College has retained stalwart doctrinal commitments. It is a theologically confessing school.
  • Every student at King’s College majors in a program called “PPE” — Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. From there, each student is allowed a concentration in a different sub-category. Had a program like this been available to me during my undergrad, I would have been left salivating over its course offerings. Their understanding of a Christian worldview has an integrative bent do it.
  • The college is unapologetically conservative in its political discourse and attitude towards engagement.
  • King’s is designed to instill students with an informed worldview and in turn, place their students in highly influential cultural institutions. An “infiltration” mentality is apparently an ideal.

Personally speaking, as a brand new father, I jokingly (and seriously) tell my wife that our daughter has currently only four options from which to choose to attend college. Tragically, while two of the colleges are Christian by design, I have no immediate desire that my daughter attend only a Christian college. Evangelicalism is hollowing and shallow; and good Christian education has been replicated so few times that I’m convinced that such an endeavor is not a primary concern of mine. I don’t mean to disrespect Christian colleges, but I also don’t esteem them as arbiters or guarantors of dependable Christian orthodoxy.

Here’s the rub: Schools that have remained politically conservative (and there are few) have remained determinatively more politically conservative than Christian schools who have tried to remain evangelical.  The arc of institutional drift is toward liberalism; and sadly, this is remarkably true of most Christian colleges. Christian colleges provide an inoculating effect of instilling just enough Christian culture to pacify parents while often compromising doctrinal fidelity in the name of academic freedom.

Is it wrong for King’s College to remain both outspokenly Christian and conservative? Absolutely not. Insofar as the administration understands where Christianity and conservatism complement each other; and, where there’s no capitulating of Christianity to extremist conservative positions, I’m fine with it. As far as Christian education is concerned, it’s more important to be a Christian school with conservative values than a conservative school with mildly Christian values.

Nowhere through the King’s website have I seen a sanctimonious attempt to baptize conservative orthodoxy. Instead, what is apparent is that King’s College expresses its Christianity in a uniquely conservative flavor. There’s a quality distinction to be had here.

I doubt you’d find anybody in their administration argue that free-market capitalism saves. I would suggest, that you’d find committed Christians who recognize that certain economic and political principles are more resonant and acclimatizing with conservative intrepretations of Scripture. I mean, really, why is it that Jim Wallis is a political liberal and arrives at such by a theologically liberal reading of Scripture?

We can all hang our heads in despair, but we can also recognize that detractors to the Religious Left are guilty of empowering a politicial liberalism as the Religious Right is guilty of empowering a political conservatism. Such is life; a life that is not lived in an ideological vacuum. And, to the great credit of King’s College, I’ve never seen anything of their literature which suggests that it sees itself as the masthead of Religious Right conservatism.

It’s a Christian school. And a conservative school. And that’s okay.

Tragically, most Christian colleges are mildly Christian and trending towards liberalism. This, dear readers, is a shame.

With King’s College, I might just expand the list of available college options to a fifth.

[For purposes of clarification, my intent behind this post was to express the necessary ideological bent of education. Though I do support King’s College in its mission as it stands, my intent was not to write an apologia for the college]

Posted by Andrew Walker

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.